Manner Matters: Bagel Brouhaha and the Rules of Cohabitation


[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

My girlfriend and I just moved into a new place that we bought a couple months ago and now have a running disagreement.

Right after we moved in, a couple of her friends wanted to come over and see it and bring us bagels. I said I'd prefer to go out to eat because the place was too much of a mess and there wasn't anywhere to eat, plus I didn't want to deal with sesame seeds and bagel crumbs. I can be a bit of a neat freak and we had just spent three weeks completely cleaning and repainting after realizing there had been a roach infestation, so I was extra aware of keeping food where it could be cleaned up properly.

My girlfriend thought this was a totally unreasonable request. She told her friends I was being a jerk, but relayed my request nonetheless. When they met us at the restaurant, one of them refused to eat any of the food there, then proceeded to buy a bagel (with my girlfriend's blessing) and bring it to our place to eat. I think that it was super rude, given that she knew I didn't want people eating in the apartment before we had things set up. For the record, I was finding sesame seeds in the couch days later.

So my question is: Was was I out of line? And, more generally, is it okay for a host to request that houseguests not eat certain foods in certain areas of the home? Can I ask guests to eat messy foods at the dining table or in the kitchen, as opposed to on the couch in the living room or in a bedroom? Sincerely, Neat Freak

Dear Neat Freak,

Let's start with the second, easy part of your question: Yes, it is completely acceptable for hosts to ask that guests eat in designated areas.

Note that if you put food out, people are most likely to eat it where they find it. This makes guests easier to steer with certain kinds of entertaining. I have a hard time imagining a guest at a dinner party taking their plate from the table and going to the bedroom, but at a cocktail party, people are going to be liable to take a handful of nuts with them as they take a tour of your new digs. Polite guests follow such guidelines with good cheer (although they may choose to mock particularly strict or unreasonable ones later with like-minded eaters).

The larger and trickier issue is that you can have all the rules and guidelines you like about people only eating in the kitchen or at the dining table, but unless your girlfriend is on-board with them, it won't matter much.

In short, I can see how a running argument might be happening if you can't agree on this. House rules are important, but they need to be agreed upon by all parties in the dwelling.

So, were you out of line for not wanting to have people over for bagels while you were trying to move into a place? No. People, even well-meaning friends with bagels in hand, cannot politely invite themselves to someone's house. Good friends can float the idea of coming over, but it's up to the host whether or not to have people in their house.

Another way to phrase the question, though, is this: were you out of line for not letting your girlfriend have her friends over? I'm guessing you didn't think about it quite like that. Your girlfriend clearly wanted to accept her friends' kind and helpful gesture of bringing you sustenance when they knew you were busy, I imagine she felt that she was being ungrateful when she declined their offer. She may have even felt that you were being controlling and that it didn't matter much that you were thinking you were only controlling crumbs.

I'm a bit shocked by the friend who forewent breakfast only to bring the forbidden bagel back to your place (she sounds like a real piece of work), but I'm more concerned about your girlfriend giving her blessing for such a passive-aggressive move.

Someone with more lenient notions of where food belongs could think that you are being nuts, but if that person is your girlfriend and you live together... she needs to address the issue directly with you (and you with her) and not use a third party as a pawn.

As with most disagreements between people who live together, my guess is that this battle over bagels isn't about the breakfast—it's about respect and feeling understood (or, more accurately, the lack thereof). Gemini that I am, I can see how you probably each feel misunderstood and not fully respected.

We are all free to eat over the sink to keep the kitchen clean or sprinkle sesame seeds all over the couch and call it decoration, but when we live with other people we need to compromise. We need to hash things out we don't agree on, find a mid-point everyone can live with, and honor that agreement. While it has nothing to do with etiquette, as a fellow crumb and clutter hater who's lived with a dashing and delightful slob for over 20 years, I suggest 1) you singular loosen up on your freaky neatness and 2) you plural set some clear house rules on where food goes and how you handle guests coming over that you can both live with.

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